In the 1970s, Dutch football witnessed its first golden generation of players who popularised ‘total football’ at the world stage. Led by their talismanic playmaker Johan Cruyff and under the guidance of head coach Rinus Michels, Netherlands finished runners-up at two consecutive Fifa World Cups – 1974 and ‘78.
But the decade after that saw a sharp decline for the Dutch. They didn’t qualify for the 1982 and ‘86 Fifa World Cups as well as the ‘84 European Championships. They had made a name for themselves in international football with their attractive, attacking style of play but the results on the field saw them fall far behind the competition.
However, then came Euro 1988 which brought along with it the greatest moment in Dutch football history.
Netherlands started the tournament with a 0-1 defeat to Soviet Union. With just eight teams, divided into two groups, participating and semi-final spots to fight for, Michels’ men were left with no room for error in their remaining two league games.
And they responded immediately, going on a fairytale run that saw them lift their first and only major international trophy.
It all started with Marco van Basten coming into the side. The right-footed striker was not part of the playing XI for the opener but his inclusion in the second game worked instantly. Netherlands beat England 3-1 in their second game with van Basten scoring a hat-trick. The victory provided a major boost to the Dutch and gave them the belief that they belonged at that level.
Ireland and the Soviet Union – the other two teams in Group B – played out a draw and that meant Netherlands had to beat Ireland in their last league game to qualify for the semi-finals. And they did just that, with Wim Kieft’s brilliant header giving them a 1-0 win.
The first semi-final saw Soviet Union earn a comfortable 2-0 win over Italy, and all eyes then shifted to the mouthwatering clash between Netherlands and hosts West Germany. The Dutch were the underdogs in that game, having lost consecutive Fifa World Cup finals to West Germany in the 1970s, and were determined to get one back at their great rivals.
The match proved to be a pulsating encounter and lived up to the billing. Lothar Matthaus and Co opened the scoring in the 55th minute with the skipper slotting home a penalty. However, Netherlands equalised after van Basten was brought down in the box with just 16 minutes of normal time remaining. Ronald Koeman converted the penalty and the match headed towards a nail-biting finish.
Netherlands eventually got the winner in the 88th minute with van Basten picking up a pass from Jan Wouters and slotting it into the bottom corner. The Dutch, who started the tournament with a loss to Soviet Union, had set up a rematch with a dream run to the final.
It was a fitting finale for Netherlands. They had to the opportunity to earn their biggest triumph at Munich’s Olympiastadion – the same venue where they lost the 1974 Fifa World Cup final to West Germany.
And they barely put a foot wrong in the final. They took the lead in the 33rd minute when captain Ruud Gullit hit a thunderous header from the six yard box. Then came a moment which proved to be one of the lasting memories of the tournament.
Van Basten was already the leading goal-scorer of the tournament at that time. But his fifth and final goal was by far the most memorable one. The then 23-year-old AC Milan striker hit the most audacious, technically sound volley into the top corner. The cross came in from the left and he didn’t have a moment’s hesitation in thumping it across the keeper from a tight angle.
That unforgettable goal by van Basten sealed the deal and Netherlands got their hands on the Euro 1988 trophy.
“You need a lot of luck with a shot like that,” van Basten was quoted as saying by Uefa.com. “Everything went well. It is one of those things that sometimes just happens. I had a difficult year with a lot of injury problems. From that moment (the England win), everything changed and everything went positive.”